It has happened to every business owner, especially in the world of consulting. Things are going great at first. You landed a big client, all your work is going smoothly and everyone is impressed with how on top of things you are. And then boom. Just like that, you screw up big time with something you can't just sweep under the rug.
Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in the world of consulting. No matter how great your intentions are, how many talents you have and how hard you work to get everything just right, you will inevitably make a mistake with a customer. The difference between success and failure is how you recover from them.
Even the toughest client understands that mistakes will happen. But it's up to you to own up to your mistake, apologize for it and figure out how to make it right. Your credibility has been damaged, whether you overpromised and underdelivered, didn't make the right contacts or are three weeks behind deadline – you screwed up.
Hopefully it was a mistake made in good faith, meaning you tried your best and did all you could with good intentions but still missed the mark. If that's the case, it's up to you to make amends and try to do your best to minimize damage and make the mistake work for you. Preserving your credibility is key in these situations, so get to work on reputation triage right away.
The first step is to look at the situation and be completely honest about how much of it is your fault. Sometimes mistakes happen because the client didn't provide the right information or made a blunder along the way, and sometimes the blame lies with both of you. But if it is truly a mistake that you are solely responsible for, then admit it and face up to the repercussions. It is powerful to say,
Clients end up respecting you more for having the ability to be humble, responsible and honest.
This one hurts sometimes, especially when egos are involved, but if you screwed up, you really have to get it together and deliver a genuine apology. Forget the blame-transferring apology, too ("I'm sorry if you expected something different"). You want your client to know that you really understand what happened, why it went wrong, and where it started and that they can trust that it wasn't just a random blunder that you tried to cover up but couldn't.
If it was a failure on the part of multiple people, acknowledge that there is a process in place that needs to be fixed. Whatever the issue is, make them aware that you see it fully and are aware of the need for change.
Once you've spoken with your client, laid the blame game aside and wholeheartedly apologized, look for improvements that can keep this issue from ever happening again. As a consultant, it's basically your job to see problems and solve them in order to help businesses grow. There's no reason why you shouldn't be exercising those same skills in this situation.
- Why did the problem occur?
- Were you short staffed?
- Did you not ask for the right information from the client?
- Did you offer things that were actually not in the bandwidth of what you could deliver?
- What was the screw up all about?
When you have a proper sense of what you have done wrong you can really move forward with improvements that can help you repair the damage more quickly and also better address other clients going forward.
Owning up to a mistake and finding ways to correct it are crucial. But if you continue to apologize or go overboard with trying to make reparations, you will just look like a schmuck. People make mistakes, and your role in it was problematic; however, you've acknowledged that and made the client feel comfortable that you are managing it and won't let it happen again.
Anything beyond that can do further damage to your credibility and undermine your reputation, and you want the mistake to be wrapped up as quickly as possible, not let it come back and haunt you.
Depending on what kind of mistake you made, you could be able to turn it into a valuable lesson for yourself, your company and others. Take stock of the different elements that played into your screw up and figure out how you could have done better.
Was it a communication error? Maybe that could open the door for other improvements in communication over time.
Internal processes shut down? Get your team together and figure out how you can avoid having it ever happen again.
There are all kinds of ways you can dial up your efforts after a screw up and move on to new jobs that you will complete successfully and with confidence.